It seems every local lover of hole-in-the-wall Mexican food restaurants has a strong opinion on where to find the most authentic tacos, tamales and other assortments of spicy foods. With the Hispanic population in Utah County growing exponentially, the choices of authentic Mexican restaurants seem endless.
Competing against large-scale chain restaurants like Cafe Rio, Costa Vida and Taco Bell, smaller Mexican food joints have set themselves apart by offering specialty dishes and authentic ingredients and recipes.
Otto Zelaya, owner of Diego’s Restaurant at 45 W. 300 North in Provo, grew up in Mexico City, where he learned through family traditions how to cook traditional Latino food. Zelaya said Diego’s offers authentic dishes that outdo chain restaurants simply because of the flavor and seasonings they use for each entree.
“It’s a whole different type of food,” Zelaya said. “Our pork tastes like pork, our beef tastes like real beef should. We don’t have a ‘general flavor.'”
According to Zelaya, the food is prepared by chefs who learned the art of Mexican cuisine through family. Zelaya and his co-workers sit down and teach the cooks the family recipes, along with what the cooks already know from the recipes they learned in Guerrero and Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Patrons also differ at Diego’s, which has been in business for more than 20 years, from those who might visit Cafe Rio or Costa Vida.
“We have a different type of clientele,” Zelaya said. “Here, we have mostly kids who went on Spanish-speaking missions, so they know the food. Or we have people that are regulars. We’ve been in business 21 years, so we have people that have been coming for 21 years.”
Joe Swain and three fellow co-workers operate Mountain West Burrito at 1796 N. 950 West in Provo. They also strive to serve authentic and traditional dishes at his restaurant, which opened less than a year ago. However, Swain’s main focus is to offer healthy alternatives that offer the highest-quality ingredients.
“We have learned from being involved with food and restaurants for a while that the whole industry revolves around buying the cheapest ingredients possible and then turning around and selling them for as much as you can get away with,” Swain said in an email. “We never liked that whole game so we set out to open a restaurant that we wished existed, a restaurant that did the exact opposite. We use the best ingredients we can get our hands on and try to keep our prices as affordable as possible.”
To find the healthiest ingredients, Swain said he ends up using organic ingredients and local produce from organic farmers.
“We also use pasture raised beef and pork,” Swain said. “We do this because of the quality and flavor but also because we hope to support others who care about a more sustainable future.”
While Mountain West Burrito attracts a different crowd than Diego’s both restaurants offer authentic Mexican food that might not be found at a chain restaurant.
Rocio Escrata, an employee at Taqueria El Vaquero at 286 N. 100 West in Provo, has been working at the restaurant since it reopened two years ago under new management. Taqueria El Vaquero’s specialty tacos place it in the ranks with Diego’s and Mountain West Burrito of restaurants who offer their own unique versions of authentic Mexican food.
“Not everyone knows how to make authentic tacos,” Escrata said. “That’s why we’re the best, because our tacos are made exactly how they are made in Mexico.”